Getting to your ideal “race weight” can be tricky. You want to lose weight to get faster, run (or ride) more efficiently and — let’s be honest — look great in your shorts. But dropping weight as an athlete is more complicated than just cutting a few calories here and there. You want to shed fat while maintaining muscle, staying fast and recovering well from workouts, as you potentially slash calories. So what’s an athlete to do?
In researching and writing “Fuel Your Ride,” a comprehensive guide to cycling nutrition with a hefty section on weight loss, I found out the secrets that pros and experts use for dropping weight while maintaining fitness. Here are a few of my favorite findings:
1. Know your goals.
First, take a step back and ask yourself why exactly you want to lose weight and how much you want to lose. So many of us are guilty of that ambiguous “I-want-to-lose-5-or-10-pounds” goal that’s set arbitrarily after a bad angle in a photo sets us off. But weight loss, especially for an athlete like you with a race coming up, isn’t that simple. It’s going to take work, so put some time into thinking about what you really want.
Don’t say, “I want to lose 5 pounds.” Instead say, “I weigh 183 pounds, and I’d like to get my body fat down to 19%, which means losing 8 pounds.” Do some legwork, and get specific about what your goals are. Body fat percentage and even basic measurements of specific body parts with a tape measure are more revealing than the numbers on a scale because, as athletes, we don’t want to shed muscle.
2. Weigh in.
OK, so you’ve decided on your weight-loss goal, whether that’s to lose 2 inches, 2% body fat or 20 pounds. Now it’s time to keep it honest. Start with regular weigh-ins or measurements, whether that’s daily, every other day or weekly. Just the act of weighing in (or knowing that a weigh-in is coming) can keep you on track — and help you get back on track if the number you’re measuring is trending in the wrong direction.
Stick to the same time of day for more accurate comparison, and keep a running chart of your changes. One note: Expect some fluctuation in the wrong direction, even if you’re doing everything right. Sometimes you retain water, your hormones fluctuate or you just need to use the bathroom before a weigh-in.
3. Track your consumption.
Logging what and how much you eat and drink doubles your chances for weight-loss success, according to a study conducted by the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research. “The more food records people kept, the more weight they lost,” wrote lead author Jack Hollis, PhD. “Those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records. It seems that the simple act of writing down what you eat encourages people to consume fewer calories.”
If the idea of keeping track of every calorie stresses you out, don’t panic — you don’t have to keep track of your food forever. Even spending a week noting what you’re eating can give you a great picture of how your nutrition and caloric needs add up. Once you gain insights into what you need to change and find success with your new healthier habits, you can take a break from logging. Any time you need to tighten up, you can start tracking again to learn what changes you might need to make.
4. Find a friend.
Using an app like MyFitnessPal to track food is great, but another beneficial part is that you can also use it as a social network or as a way to share your progress on other social media networks. That community aspect can actually help keep you on track. Sometimes, that extra bit of motivation goes a long way to keep you from eating that cookie, especially if you know you’ll have to log it and people will be able to see.
5. Add protein.
So many athletes focus on carbohydrate intake, which is important since we need the fuel. On the flip side, a lot of athletes are now leaning toward a high-fat diet instead of a high-carb one. But what both approaches often overlook is the hugely important role protein plays on weight loss, satiety and post-workout recovery.
To recover and rebuild muscle after a training session, you should aim to take in around 20 grams of protein, said Nanci Guest, the lead dietitian at the 2015 Pan-Am Games in Ontario and lead expert for “Fuel Your Ride.” In your journey toward race-weight readiness, you don’t want to lose muscle. You want to burn fat. And making sure that you get enough protein in each meal (again, around 20 grams per meal, four times a day) will help keep you satisfied as well as properly recovered to train again tomorrow.
6. Eat to train.
Being on a serious weight-loss mission doesn’t mean living without all of your favorite foods. It does, however, mean that portion control and timing become more important. A favorite trick of the pros interviewed for my book was to have their indulgences while on rides. Bringing a homemade cookie instead of a gel on a ride or a run or making a pie stop midway through a long run can be a lot more satisfying than standard training food. Since those calories will immediately get burned during the rest of your run or ride, your indulgence isn’t going to go straight to your tummy.
Plan your bigger or more indulgent meals for before or right after your tougher workouts as well, so that the carbohydrates can be better utilized for fuel or recovery. But skip the late-night treats, unless you train late at night, too.
7. Value slow and steady progress.
Sadly, embarking on a weight-loss mission won’t garner movie montage-worthy results in your first week. You might be lucky and drop a few pounds fairly quickly as soon as you start monitoring your intake and upping your training hours, but expect that you’ll hit a plateau after the initial few pounds comes off. Studies have shown that when weight is lost rapidly, it’s regained almost equally as fast, so don’t fall into the trap of fad dieting or dropping caloric intake dangerously low. You can expect to drop between 1–2 pounds a week if you’re losing weight in a safe, effective way that will still allow you to be in race-ready condition, so don’t panic if the scale is barely budging. Think of weight loss as a long game, versus a short con.